This article by Sandra Dodd appeared in the September/October 2002 issue of Home Education Magazine.

article in French

Once upon a time a confident and experienced scholar went to the best Zen teacher he knew, to apply to be his student. The master offered tea, and he held out his cup. While the student recited his knowledge and cataloged his accomplishments to date, the master poured slowly. The bragging continued, and the pouring continued, until the student was getting a lapful of tea, and said, "My cup is full!" The master smiled and said, "Yes, it is. And until you empty yourself of what you think you know, you won't be able to learn."

Weird Al says it a different way in "Everything You Know is Wrong," and Christians say "You must surrender yourself." Before that Jesus said, "Unless you become as a little child..."

What it means in homeschooling terms is that as long as you think you can control and add to what you already know, it will be hard to come to unschooling. The more quickly you empty your cup and open yourself to new ideas uncritically, the sooner you will see natural learning blossom.

So much for philosophy and buildup. How can this be done? Can it work for former teachers? What about engineers who are sure their children need lots of math in an organized fashion? What about moms who love schedules and organization?

Deschooling is needed much more by parents than by children. I still have subconscious school-stuff to slough off; it surfaces when I least expect it and I wrestle it, encapsulate it, and try to forget it.

Here's a way to schedule some deschooling and avoid the time-wasting stress of trying to build unschooling out of school-parts.

Quick Installation for Unschooling: Just stop.

Stop thinking schoolishly. Stop acting teacherishly. Stop talking about learning as though it's separate from life.

Gradual Installation (necessary in most school-trained cases):

  • Think about everything you've ever learned. Make a list if you want. Count changing the oil in your truck, or in your deep fryer. Count using a calculator or a sewing machine. Count bike riding and bird watching. Count belching at will and spinning with your eyes closed if you want to. Think about what was fun to learn and what you learned outside of school.

  • Watch some or all of these movies. If they make you think of any other movies you haven't seen for a while, or never got to see before, watch those too. But watch these, with or without kids:
    Mary Poppins
    Heidi (with Shirley Temple)
    The Sound of Music
    Searching for Bobby Fischer ("Innocent Moves" is the British title)
    Ferris Bueller's Day Off

    You don't need to think too hard about those movies. No tests, analysis or reports. Just let the images and ideas flow through and over you. Come back to them sometime, when you've been unschooling a while.

  • Remember school. Take a breath and picture your favorite, clearest school year. See all the elements of its form and organization. Is it vivid?

    Okay. Here is how you learn NOT to overlay all that on your unschooling life where its structure and terminology will disturb the peace and hinder progress. I am asking you to take your school memories, add light, and stir.

    First Phase: "Learning" replaces "teaching"

    Replace any form of the verb "to teach" with "to learn." It will involve some rephrasing, and sometimes you have to back up and totally revise the statement or the idea. Replace "I taught him..." with "He learned...". Replace "I plan to teach him..." with "When he learns..." (You might want to retroactively revise your earlier thoughts too. If you think you taught your child to eat or talk or walk, you might want to replace those memories with "He learned to walk by pulling himself up and trying it," and so on.)

    Advanced Phase: Speech Purge

    Don't use any of these school words: semester, grade, age level, grade level, scores, subjects, school year, school hours, school day. Don't even have a school minute. And when school is gone, life will be left.

    Get a coin bank or change cup or a box with a hole in it. This is important. It can be literal and earthly, or an imaginary coin bank in your head, if you're shy. If you use a school word, put a coin in your fine-bank. If you're using the word to convince yourself that unschooling isn't going to work, double the fine.

    When the cup fills up, spend that money on something for you and your child. Ice cream or a movie, maybe. A slinky or a helium balloon. Not a workbook or a protractor. If a year goes by and the cup didn't fill up, take the whole family to dinner at a cool restaurant you've never been to before and celebrate!

    Final Phase: Thought Purge

    Fine yourself for even thinking in those school terms.

    Having excised the offending concepts you will have extra room in your head and you can fill it up with your newfound unschooling awareness.

  • Change your schedule. Some people like to see learning parceled out evenly over the year, over the week, or over a day. But life is lumpy. As with chaos theory, or statistics and probability, there are "busy" times and big quiet loops which seem to be going nowhere and actually have a destination. Think "leaps and bounds," with rests in between.

    Instead of looking for "steady pace," look for fits and starts. What if a child has a great piano week and practices two hours a day and then he's tired of it for the rest of the month? It wouldn't all be lost and over and ruined. What if, one day, he just GETS some mathematical concept. Will you recalibrate the level at which you want him to work steadily? Or can he take a break for a month or a year without you panicking?

    Kids at school each "get" multiplication once, and after that they're just hearing the explanation over and over while the teacher rephrases and re-introduces and reviews in hopes that some of the other kids will "get it" that day.

    The "steady" pace schools simulate is 1) not real, and 2) not applicable to natural learning anyway.

    "Having history" 180 times a year is like trying to teach a pig to sing. In one good half an hour, an interested and curious (i.e. "ripe") child might learn as much about the Civil War or Apollo 11 as she would in a week at school (if ever). And history is all around us all the time. We're making it today.

  • Look directly at your child. Practice watching your child without expectations. Try to see what he is really doing, rather than seeing what he's NOT doing. If you hold the template of "learning" up and squint through that, it will be harder for you to see clearly. Just look.


    When you have completed some or most of the exercises above and you no longer tense up at the thought of whether your child could possibly get into college, and when you can hear "math worksheets" without thinking "Maybe we should get some of THOSE!" you can consider yourself a graduate of Sandra Dodd's Advanced School of Deschooling.

    Congratulations! Below is your combination final project and field trip: Rent some movies and watch with your kids. Here's my recommended list, but let personal preference rule. You might have better ideas:

    El Cid
    Ben Hur
    The King and I
    Monty Python and the Holy Grail
              (maybe send little kids for popcorn during Castle Anthrax)
    Star Wars (all)
    Karate Kid (all three in marathon can be good!)
    Hamlet (I like the one with Mel Gibson)
    Romeo and Juliet (Zeffirelli's, from the late 60's)
    Singing in the Rain
    Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
    O Brother, Where Art Thou?
    The Music Man
    Last Action Hero
    Galaxy Quest
    The Miracle Worker
    Fly Away Home
    Paper Moon (Holly's recommendation)
    Discuss as little or as much as the kids seem interested in discussing. By this point you'll be past the need to wonder whether there's anything worth learning in those movies, and you'll see your kids learning and laughing and being glad you're there.

    Have fun learning for the rest of your life!

    Sandra Dodd
    , former mother of toddlers, has had three large children sneak up on her over the past ten years. They just keep hanging around the house and learning things. Read more at SandraDodd.com anytime.

    More Movie Recommendations: Movies for Unschoolers

    2013 UPDATE NOTE:Pam Laricchia wrote a great companion piece for Ferris Bueller's Day off: Living Joyfully Newsletter Issue 8

    Joyce Fetteroll, September 2013:
    Probably the hardest piece of baggage to remove while deschooling is trying to get your family to match your vision for them.

    Wanting your family to be happy, joyful and learning seems a perfectly fine goal! But you won't get there by focusing on what you want. You'll get there by focusing on what they want.

    What are your kids interested in? What do they want? How can you support that?

    That's where everyone, regardless of their kids' ages, can begin to create an unschooling home and grow better relationships.

    The more you focus on your need, the harder it will be to hear what their needs are.

    —Joyce Fetteroll (original)
    Click here to read comments on this page or ensuing discussions.

    More on deschooling by many authors here.

    Title art by Holly Dodd